In Undiscovered, a Peruvian journalist and novelist living in Madrid confronts her past, present and future in a meditative work of autofiction. Gabriela Wiener begins with a visit to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris to see the Charles Wiener collection of artifacts, noting “that all these statuettes that look like me were wrenched from my country by a man whose last name I inherited.” Her father has just died, and as she grieves, she examines his life, exploring his relationships with her, her mother and his mistress. As she aptly notes, “My penchant for playing detective on family cases has only gotten worse with time.”
Charles Wiener, the author’s great-great-grandfather, was an Austrian-French explorer who traveled extensively in Peru and came close to rediscovering the ruins of Machu Picchu. He is said to have taken 4,000 pre-Columbian artifacts to Europe. Undiscovered insightfully probes his legacy, noting that he was more of a “media man” than a scientist. “Back then,” Wiener writes, “you just had to move some dirt around to call it archaeology.” She is particularly horrified to discover that Charles Wiener purchased, or as she corrects him, stole, an Indigenous child from his mother, taking the boy back to Europe with him.
Wiener freely discusses many aspects of her own life, including her discomfort as a brown-skinned girl around her white paternal grandparents. From time to time, she inserts humor, noting, for instance, that after her grandfather’s death, “my white grandmother became more affectionate toward us and started farting when she walked from one room to another.” She also muses about her relationships as a polyamorous woman. She shares a child with her husband, while her wife and husband also share a child, and she finds herself being unfaithful to both her husband and wife. “I’m at a loss about what to do with my life,” she confesses, interweaving this uncertainty with the effects of her family’s long legacy of racism, desire and colonialism. Long strands from the past entangle her every move.
While Undiscovered often feels more like an essay than a novel, Wiener delivers a no-holds-barred, unflinching discussion. She reminds readers of the importance of confronting the white-savior myths that form the basis of so much of what we call “history.”